- - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

BERLIN — Angela Merkel, the no-nonsense leader of Germany and protector of the euro, has a fearless new rival. Alexis Tsipras, the newly elected prime minister of Greece, and the leader of the left-wing Syriza Party, offers a different understanding of economics: Spend money whether you have it or not, and get someone else to pay up. Eager to reduce a multitude of problems to caricature, the Greeks regard themselves as caught between a stern German disciplinarian, the “austerity dominatrix,” and the man playful Greek women call “Sexy Alexi.”

Nonsense is more fun, even if discipline is what welfare states need, particularly if they’re out-of-control welfare states. The struggle between the dominatrix and sexy Alexi is getting mean. The stakes are high: The fate of the euro hangs in the balance and beyond that, maybe, the unity of Europe. “This is a clash of democracies, rather than a clash of ideas,” Mats Persson, director of Open Europe, a London financial research company, tells The New York Times. “Voters in Germany and Greece want very different things.”

From the sound of media rhetoric you might think Nazi soldiers in polished jackboots are still in pursuit of the Greek resistance. New nightmares over Greek debt revive memories of a nasty time. Observes London’s New Statesman magazine: “European Union officials in Greece are likened to the Gestapo.”

Germany’s economic recovery and its acknowledgment of the sins of the Holocaust had given the world a new view of Germany. But many Greeks are looking backward. Even the new prime minister, though only 40, has a memory older than his years. His first act as prime minister was to visit a World War II memorial to 200 Greek resistance fighters who were slain by the Nazis in 1944. The Germans noticed.

Both sides see each other as stereotypes. The Germans see the Greeks as pleasure-seeking spendthrifts looking for handouts, evading taxes and sipping ouzo in the sun, trying to figure out an early retirement on a fat pension. The Greeks see the Germans as high-tech workaholics doomed to a grind under a cold gray northern sky. Bild, Germany’s largest newspaper, asked after the Greek election how many more billions the election of Mr. Tsipras would cost the German taxpayer: Who is going to pay for the raised minimum wage, food stamps, renewed union demands, and the rehiring of all those laid-off government employees? Good questions all for all of Europe.

Contrasting lifestyles of Germans and Greeks inevitably feeds caricature. Germans have suggested only half in jest that Greece sell its ancient treasures of marble and bronze and peddle their “worry beads” to tourists, since the Greeks don’t seem to worry about much, anyway.

Despite the reputation as a strict disciplinarian and scold that she sometimes uses to good effect, Angela Merkel dismisses the stereotypes. “Often, so-called austerity is pitted against the model of growth and investment,” she told the World Economic Forum in Davos. She calls cost-saving measures “structural reforms,” and that means no more cash to a debtor nation without imposing harsh constraints. Athens has been forgiven billions of euros by private creditors already, and she says no more.

Mr. Tsipras knows that three-quarters of the Greeks say they want to keep the euro; it’s a matter of pride and national identity. If his emotional appeals have often gone over the top, he has nevertheless softened his hostile rhetoric from two years ago when he wanted to disregard all responsibility for Greek debt.

Many Europeans seem to be worried less about the collapse of the euro, which they don’t expect to happen, than about the rise of political parties on the fringes of both right and left. Unemployment among Greeks between 15 and 25 is measured at an astonishing 51 percent, and anger about unemployment is contagious.

Mr. Tspiras chose the right-wing populist Independent Greeks as a partner in his ruling coalition, whose leader rants against the European Union as “the Fourth Reich,” and describes Germany as an “occupying country.”

The new prime minister’s most appealing constituency may be the regiment of cleaning ladies who have lived in tents at the economics ministry for the past 16 months, giving journalists moving accounts of losing their jobs cleaning government buildings to illegal immigrants willing to work for a euro an hour. Armed with rubber gloves and buckets, brooms and mops on their shoulders, they’re heading back to work now to cheers of bystanders. They’ll have an easier time with the accumulated grime than Frau Merkel and Mr. Tsipras are likely to have resolving their differences. The fringe parties are watching.

Suzanne Fields is a columnist for The Washington Times and is nationally syndicated.

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